France’s Europhile-in-Chief Is About to Meet a Berlin Wall

Emmanuel Macron may have saved the European Union. But he’s not finding much gratitude in Germany.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 29:  German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media following an extraordinary meeting with leaders of Germany's main political parties at the Chancellery the day after the European Central Bank announced it would not extend emergency funding to Greece on June 29, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Stock markets in Europe were markedly down today and the Greek government ordered cash machines turned off and a tightening on the flow of capital in an effort to staunch citizens' withdrawals.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 29: German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media following an extraordinary meeting with leaders of Germany's main political parties at the Chancellery the day after the European Central Bank announced it would not extend emergency funding to Greece on June 29, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Stock markets in Europe were markedly down today and the Greek government ordered cash machines turned off and a tightening on the flow of capital in an effort to staunch citizens' withdrawals. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

For a Frenchman, the 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron knows quite a bit about Germany and the German Weltanschauung. His spoken Deutsch is competent, his comprehension nearly perfect — a consequence not least of his philosophy studies, which included penning a doctoral thesis on Hegel. Moreover, since his 2012 appointment as economic advisor to President François Hollande and then as France’s economy minister until 2016, the new French president-elect has shrewdly cultivated ties with France’s hefty next-door neighbor, including a personal friendship with the Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s equally hefty former economy minister and current foreign minister. All along, insiders say, his aim was one day to revamp the EU with Germany’s aid.

On the campaign trail and behind closed doors in recent months, Macron has repeatedly underscored that a revitalization of the French-German partnership, the motor of European integration in the Cold War decades, is key to restoring the EU’s health and making it worthy of future generations’ loyalty. Macron backs wide-ranging reforms that would bind the union more tightly together and push through long-overdue democratization, saying the EU can’t “remain frozen for eternity.” But knowing the Germans as he does, he is well-aware that in terms of outlook and perceived self-interest, more separates France and Germany today than at any time since the postwar decades.

Germans sighed in deep relief at Macron’s overwhelming victory in the final round of presidential elections on May 7 — and along with warm congratulations, the Angela Merkel administration pledged to work closely with the new president. But it only took a day for the post-election Franco-German bonhomie to evaporate: By May 8, the German chancellor was back to toeing the party line when it came to questions of German flexibility on deficits and eurozone reform. “We’re always helpful,” she said at a press conference in Berlin. “But German support can’t replace solid French policy.”

Macron’s recipe for revitalizing the EU calls for deeper economic integration that would include a common fiscal policy and completion of the banking union; the Germans envision a multispeed Europe and loosely networked eurozone in which individual states maintain maximum control of their own budgets. Macron favors creating an EU finance ministry, an EU budget for social issues, and pan-European social insurance — issues that will certainly surface during his meeting with Merkel in Berlin today on his first trip abroad as president. This kind of tighter eurozone integration is starkly at odds with the vision of German conservatives, who consistently oppose handing over economic sovereignty to the EU — and say they will oppose it in the future. One of the most potent remedies available for the ailing EU, the Germans say, is for France and other countries to fix their own dysfunctional economies within the existing EU rules on maintaining low national deficits and debt.

From some vantage points, Macron’s unlikely electoral feat — a pro-European candidate running and winning at a time of intense EU skepticism — is a best-case scenario for Germany, given that most of the other candidates, from old communists on the left to nationalists on the far-right, were all markedly less friendly to the EU and Germany, too. The victory of the French Germanophile marked another defeat of anti-EU populists — after recent losses in the Netherlands and Austria — and presented Europe with the sanguine possibility of France and Germany teaming up, as they so often have in the past, to drive the union forward.

“This is really an extraordinary opportunity for Europe and for Germany,” said Uwe Optenhögel of the Brussels office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank associated with Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). “Macron’s a young, open-minded, pro-European modernizer, whose positions overlap significantly with those of the SPD.” Germany’s center-left party shares the French president-elect’s desire for a sizable EU budget, anti-cyclical support mechanisms to aid the eurozone’s weakest members, and his support for more EU infrastructure investment. The SPD’s top candidate, Martin Schulz, in an effort to distinguish his party from Merkel’s, which govern together in Berlin in a grand coalition, has sought to position himself as Macron’s natural partner, though so far he has backed only some of Macron’s agenda, such as a shared budget for the eurozone countries.

Macron’s standing in France is still quite tenuous, Optenhögel said. Whether he will be able to succeed in enacting his proposed economic reforms — including changes to labor laws that would make it easier for employers to hire and fire — depends largely on the results of France’s parliamentary elections in June, which will determine whether Macron is able to cobble together a workable government. (It’s not at all clear how his nascent En Marche! movement, which is fielding candidates for the first time, will fare.) Those elections, in turn, could be affected by German chatter. French voters could be looking for signals that their new president’s vision for a revitalized Franco-German alliance on the basis of a mutually beneficial vision for the EU stands a chance. “To a certain degree, Macron’s success in the medium- and long-term future depends on our [Germany’s] position on him,” Optenhögel said. “Germany can do a lot to make his presidency a success or a failure.” Optenhögel, though, worries that business as usual in Berlin “will make Macron’s life very difficult,” perhaps causing Europe’s leading nations to miss a historic chance to get the EU back on its feet.

Indeed, Merkel and her Christian Democrats have so far shown little willingness to compromise on the firmly held convictions that have guided Germany since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008: the priority of debt reduction, the goal of balanced budgets, and every member state’s individual responsibility for its own economic conditions. German positioning has been complicated by the country’s own domestic politics. Germany has a general election slated for September; polls show that German voters are not in the mood for tying their booming economy closer to those still flagging from the eurocrisis in southern Europe. The mass circulation daily tabloid Bild on May 9 underscored the angst with the full-page headline “How Much Is Macron Going to Cost Us?”

While Merkel left most of the tough talk to others, it was clear that the message of “self-help first” in the wake of the election hailed from the chancellery. “France needs growth,” said the Markus Söder, Bavaria’s finance minister and a member of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). “That doesn’t come from new debts but rather real reforms.” The current European commissioner for budget and human resources, Günther Oettinger, a German Christian Democrat, quickly proclaimed that Germany wasn’t even slightly interested in creating an EU finance minister responsible for the eurozone (to whom Germany would answer about domestic spending). “The EU Commission monitors the member states’ budget,” he told the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper on May 9. “The Eurogroup [the eurozone’s national finance ministers] decides about financial aid. And the European Stability Mechanism is there to finance it. Right now there’s no reason to change this architecture.”

European Parliament member Markus Ferber, of the CSU, said in an interview that Macron’s EU notions stood “not a chance” in Germany, describing them as a vision “of hell” for Germans. “Germany is already working on strengthening the banking union and developing a European monetary fund, all in the name of a stronger EU,” he said, dismissing claims that Germany is only looking out for itself. “No serious German political party will ever accept euro bonds.” Before Germany makes any overture to France, Ferber added, reiterating the stance of the chancellor and her entire party, France has to “get its own economic house in order.” The Germans demand of France, Ferber said, similar market-minded reforms that Germany took in the 2000s, which didn’t just loosen up labor market regulation, as Macron has proposed, but reorganized the social welfare system and cut taxes.

For its part, France is pushing hard for Germany to spend down its immense trade surpluses, saying investment both in Germany and abroad — say, in France — would stimulate all of Europe’s economies. But so far the Germans have held fast, committed to reducing their own mountain of accumulated debt before they spend freely.

Political analyst Ronja Kempin of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said Germany is in an extremely tough spot. German politicians know full well that getting France on board and engaged is critical to turning around the crisis-plagued EU, she said. “The German political class has been very quiet about France not meeting its eurozone budget commitments,” she said, inferring that it could be complaining more vocally but wants to give France some breathing room. “But if Germany were to go even further to help out France, the other southern European countries that have suffered and struggled so much to reform their economies would feel betrayed and understandably so. They’d see France getting preferential treatment. On the other hand, we don’t want to risk [Marine] Le Pen coming to power in 2022.”

The elephant in the room is the upcoming national elections in Germany this autumn — in which the anti-EU, far-right Alternative for Germany party is almost certain to win seats for the first time in postwar history. Few observers believe that the big German parties will mimic Macron’s vigorous pro-Europe strategy — the risks are too great. Polls show the German public has little understanding or desire for “more Europe,” which, for them, translates into more German assistance for southern Europe and less say on German economic policy. Even the slightest movement in this direction, they fear, would be fodder for the far-right.

The Social Democrats, too, though more open to Macron than conservatives, are themselves wary about looking like pushovers. Macron’s friend Sigmar Gabriel had been full of enthusiasm for Macron and his agenda until the results of the regional election in the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein came in the same night as the French vote, delivering the SPD an unexpected, bracing slap. “The SPD then shifted its position in a day,” Kempin said. “They feel that they can’t be seen as too progressive on EU issues.… They reconsidered and now say that France’s problems are structural and have to be solved in France and not Brussels.”

What would work best for the Germans, Kempin said, would be “to have Macron make some progress on his own, as he has pledged to do. This would buy time for Germany and enable it to be more flexible after the vote in September.” In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel last week, German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble seemed to signal a measure of support for eurozone reforms — but emphasized that France would need to make changes at home first.

Yet not everybody agrees with a wait-and-see approach. Klaus Linsenmeier of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to the German Greens, said Germany hectoring France isn’t constructive in the least. “Let’s start talking to the new president about what we can do together, and there are a number of things,” said Linsenmeier, noting the transfer of banking oversight to the European level. “We have to meet France halfway — it can’t just be the German way all of the time. There’s too little signaling of compromise from Berlin,” however much that is an inevitability in an election year.

Linsenmeier, though, thinks that the Franco-German motor can be restarted in service of a renewed EU. It could even be a plus, he said, that France now is closer to the southern European countries than ever before, and Germany to the northern Europeans, which makes them as a tandem perfect fit. “Come fall, we’ll have two new governments in place with full terms in front of them. It can be a very positive moment if Germany doesn’t sleepwalk through it.”

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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